Rural Water and Sanitation

Sewers are gas chambers where manual scavengers are sent to die: SC

Apex court comes down heavily on govt on the issue of manual scavenging

 
By Shagun Kapil
Last Updated: Thursday 19 September 2019
Supreme Court likens sewers to gas chambers. Photo: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

Sewers in India were like gas chambers where manual scavengers were sent to die, the Supreme Court remarked on September 18, 2019.

“In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die. Every month four to five persons are losing their lives in manual scavenging,” the court said.

Coming down heavily on the government, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra asked Attorney General KK Venugopal as to why the government had failed to provide protective gear to manual scavengers.

It also asked whether untouchability as a practice had really been abolished.

The court made these remarks while hearing the Centre’s review petition challenging its order from last year on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 or SC/ST Act, when the question of deaths due to manual scavenging was raised.

Manual scavenging was banned 25 years ago with the passage of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, but every year, scores of manual scavengers die, asphyxiated by poisonous gases.

“It is good the Supreme Court made these remarks. It has also asked the government to look into this matter but again it is only about the safety gear,” Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), said.

“The court must explicitly say that we cannot allow human beings to enter into a sewer line at a time when we are sending people to the moon. Also, any judgement on this should very clearly say that if you don’t provide safety gears, you have to stop operations. They have to come with a stringent order,” he added.

According to official data, 820 sewer deaths have happened in India since 1993 till August 2019. However, experts and activists say that this number is grossly underestimated.

According to Wilson, SKA recently collated data of 1,870 deaths and submitted it to the government. This is an increase by 400 deaths from September last year when the organisation had done a similar exercise in which it had found that 1,470 people have died cleaning sewer lines and septic tanks in the last few years.

Earlier, a national survey conducted under the Niti Aayog had identified at least 54,130 manual scavengers from 170 districts of 18 states in the country.

“This is the most inhuman way to treat the human beings,” the bench observed on September 18.

It also said, “Despite the constitution abolishing untouchability in the country, I am asking you people, do you shake hands with them? The answer is no. That is the way we are going on. The condition must improve. We have moved 70 years since Independence but these things are still happening.”

The court, meanwhile, reserved its order on the Centre’s plea against its judgement on the SC/ST Act.

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